Joe Malinconico, Paterson Press
Credit: Paterson Press
PATERSON — Board of Education member Emanuel Capers should be removed from office because he took an all-expense-paid trip to a conference in Arizona paid for by a company looking for a contract with the district, the state school ethics commission has recommended.
The commission’s decision, rendered on Tuesday, rejected the findings of an administrative law judge who ruled last December that Capers had not violated state ethics rules when he took the trip in February 2018.
The ethics commission said Capers had been “overly involved in ensuring” that the district used the service of the vendor that paid for his travel, Woz U, and noted that he disregarded Superintendent Eileen Shafer’s recommendation not to go to Arizona. The state commission said any instance in which a school board member took anything of value from a potential vendor was “the epitome of unethical.”
The ethics board’s recommendation for Capers’ removal will now be sent to State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet for his decision, according to the decision.
Capers said he disagrees with the commission’s conclusions and plans to appeal.
“For the commission to say they don’t agree with the judge is mind-boggling,” Capers said. “We’re going to fight this all the way to the end. My stance has been the same from the beginning — I did nothing wrong.”
As the controversy over the trip unfolded, Capers repeatedly has said that he protected himself from any ethics violations by not participating in the vote when Paterson eventually awarded Woz U with a contract for online courses and resources. The ethics panel called Capers’ recusal “a self-serving solution.”
The commission said Capers should get the “harshest penalty” — removal from the school board — to deter other education officials from engaging in the “unethical acceptance of gifts.”
Capers has served on the Paterson school board since January 2017 and won reelection last November by eight votes. The ethics charges stemmed from a probe conducted by the man who served as the district’s security director at the time, James Smith.
Smith said he was directed to investigate Capers’ Arizona trip by Shafer and then-school board president, Oshin Castillo. But after the probe was done, Shafer did not notify the state ethics board of the investigation’s findings, Smith said. As a result, Smith personally filed the ethics complaint against Capers in July 2018 without Shafer’s blessing, he said.
Shafer suspended Smith in December 2018 for undisclosed reasons and the school board fired him in May 2019. Shortly after Smith’s termination, the district released a report that raised questions about his use of his district cellphone and vehicle, as well as the information he provided on financial disclosure forms.
Shafer declined to comment on the ethics board’s decision. Castillo could not be reached for comment.
Smith expressed his gratitude “for the truth finally coming out” and called the commission’s findings “well thought.”
“I would also like to thank Superintendent Shafer and then Board President Oshin Castillo for initiating the investigation because they knew in their heart that this was a violation,” Smith added. “I can only speculate why they had a change of heart and why they now expect private citizens to conduct investigations on board members. The School Ethics Commission has restored my faith in government.”